Showing Your Private Parts

There’s glitter on my laptop keys. Hmm. Wonder how that happened.

I’m knee-deep in the fleshing out of my latest humorous women’s fiction piece, tentatively entitled “Gemma.” I’m really digging where the story is going. The book idea came from a great opening scene that I’ve had forever, it just took a couple of years for the scene to tell me what it wanted to be when it grew into a novel. I know what Gemma’s arc needs to be, and I have other characters talking in my head telling me how they plan to contribute to her growth in both supportive and not-so-supportive ways. (*Note to self: Next month’s blog post to be about the challenges of starting with characters rather than story.)

Interestingly (to me), the more I work on this idea, the more I find that parts of my actual, real, often boring and sometimes comical life are making their way into the story. Of course there are autobiographical elements in nearly any work of fiction, even if they’re minor, like a character’s tendency to use a certain expression. But this time I’m taking big bits of Sara and assigning them to Gemma.

Starting right in the title, in fact. Gemma = Gretchen Elizabeth Mary Mueller Arnold (although her name was actually Mary Miller Arnold Mueller). That’s my mother and my grandmother’s initials, conveniently arranged. There’s a reason for that: my mother hid from life, and my grandmother chased life, and Gemma is the story of a woman’s progress from meekness to boldness.

There are more tangible connections. My grandmother makes an appearance in the story, setting into motion the external conflict. There are “Sara” details: during the two years my mother and I were on our own, we pretty much lived on breakfast. Since that was one of the happier times of my life, breakfast is something I hold dear and turn to during times of stress, and I pay homage to my love of all things breakfast by collecting waffle irons. Gemma, I’ve decided, also collects waffle irons, and there will be a scene with her having breakfast with her mother as a small child. I also have an unfortunate tendency to have funny but somewhat ego-bruising public calamities – ask me how I broke my leg in 9 places, or just last week ended up sandwiched between the treads of my staircase and a 300 pound sofa – and I’m assigning that talent to Gemma, as well.

In many ways, Gemma may be my James Frey novel, although I think there’ll actually be more truth in mine than there was in his. (My root canals have involved lots and lots of pain meds.)

As all this became more concrete in my mind, I began to wonder: how comfortable are you as writers really putting yourself in your stories? Could you put an emotionally raw personal experience on paper for the world to see, if you knew they might discover it was based on fact? What are you personal boundaries?